Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 29 April 2017

Liberalism and The Deep State

The greatness of Carl Schmitt as a political theoretician is to have exposed mercilessly the utter incompatibility of liberal principles with parliamentary institutions. The political core of liberalism, Schmitt argues, is the principle of homo homini lupus (man is a wolf to man), the grim reality of the Hobbesian bellum omnium contra omnes (the war of all against all). The bitter pursuit of self-interest - or possessive individualism, which is the cardinal principle of liberalism - will lead inexorably and inevitably to civil war: - this is a reality that we are confronting right now all over the world, within nation-states and between nation-states. Because of this, the only way to avoid the annihilation of human society is for self-interested individuals to elect a Sovereign with plenipotentiary powers - in essence, an Absolutist State, a Monarch with all powers concentrated in his person - a veritable Deus mortalis (mortal God). - And again, this is what we are witnessing with the slow and excruciating death of Western liberal parliamentary regimes as the powers of Parliament are taken over by individual Leaders (from Presidents to Prime Ministers) who are elected increasingly in a plebiscitary manner - directly by "the people", as in the US or France or through "primaries" organised by political parties.

What we are witnessing, then, is the agonising demise of parliamentary regimes in favour of "strong leaders" who answer only to "the people" without any of the "mediating" functions served previously up to now by institutions such as Parliament, political parties, and last but not least "the media" or Public Opinion. Already, Jurgen Habermas had signalled but not fully realised the epochal implications of this "structural transformation of public opinion" in the early 1960s. But it was Johann Agnoli with his "The Transformation of Democracy" who truly alerted us to the slow death of Parliaments and Political Parties.

Yet, somewhat surprisingly, the one work that most incisively and penetratingly as well as insightfully perceived the full implications of this decline of Western bourgeois liberal parliamentary regimes, and specifically of Political Parties, was that of the French sociologist Maurice Duverger with his masterful study on "Les Partis Politiques" dating back to 1969. In essence, the explicit aim of Duverger’s great study was to trace the decline of political parties in the second post-war period, once the Communist threat was contained through the Marshall Plan and through Stalinist legacies and, therefore, bourgeois Christian-Democrat parties could return to their pre-war role of “administering the State” on behalf of the bourgeoisie. Yet in reality, Morin’s political historical genius extended far beyond this explicit aim because his study also traces the history of the birth of parliamentary regimes and of political parties in particular out of the old European Absolutist States, especially in France, but extending to Germany and Britain.

What Duverger demonstrates – quite extraordinarily without almost being aware of doing this – is that “the party system” that has kept alive Western liberal parliamentary regimes was really simply an escamotage by the old landed, but increasingly capitalist aristocracy that governed under the rule of monarchs the Absolutist States that emerged out of the feudal system – an escamotage by this freshly embourgeoisified (to coin a horrible term) aristocracy to contain and control the emergence of revolutionary workers’ parties at the time of the Second Industrial Revolution from the mid-1850s. And the new bourgeoisie achieved this goal of containment by devising a parliamentary fa├žade of political representation while all the time retaining control of political power through (a) the imponent bureaucracies established by the monarchic feudal Absolutist States, and, (b) quite obviously, through the military complex. This union of bureaucracy and military – which constituted a major focus of Max Weber’s studies of the modern bourgeois State – constitutes what we may call a Deep State that controls and moderates “the alternation” of Labour/Socialist and Liberal/Conservative parties and their governments in Western bourgeois parliamentary regimes.

Furthermore, this Deep State leads to the further concentration of decision-making power into the hands of increasingly stronger Executives (Presidencies and Prime Ministerships) that, first, supplement the de-legitimisation of parliamentary regimes due to their growing political ineffectiveness and impotence, but, second, lead to the further de-legitimisation of the parliamentary systems dependent on ever-weaker political party electoral representation!

This sociological thesis and its political denouement advanced by Duverger had already been prophesied by Carl Schmitt in his pioneering studies of the 1920s and 30s – The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, and Dictatorship. (For a similar study applied to the US, see C. Rossiter, Constitutional Dictatorship. I take the liberty to refer to my own study, FDR and the New Deal.)

Theoretical Appendix:

Capitalism, Liberalism and Despotism – Locke and Hobbes


Classical political theory assumes that the State is the holistic ethico-political ex-pression and pro-duct of more fundamental social components that precede the State both historically and analytically. The bourgeois theory of the State, known as liberalism, shares this vision of the State with the added ingredient that society itself can be separated into a scientific economic spheregoverned by the “laws of the market” and “economic value”, on one side, and a political sphere of public opinion guided by ethical values, on the other. In other words, if Economics is the bourgeoisie’s scientific rationalisation of capitalism, then Liberalism constitutes its quintessential political ideology. Liberalism is the political expression of capitalism in that it proclaims that it is possible to separate the economic sphere of social life which is the realm of necessity or “free-dom”, that is, the rigid constraint of each individual free-dom imposed by the free-doms of others all understood strictly as “individual freedoms” (the optimal utilisation of resources made scarce by the insatiable nature of individual self-interest – whence the dismal science – this is the constraint that founds the scientificity of capitalist social relations, the Objective Value of neoclassical economic theory) from the sphere of freedom or public opinion in which individuals can air their most subjective beliefs, the Subjective or Ethical Values of the liberal public sphere, without – for that very reason, that is, by reason of the “ideal” nature of opinions and beliefs – upsetting the politico-technical neutrality of the State which, again, is founded on the scientificity of Economics, that is to say, on the liberalist presumption of the scientific workings of the self-regulating market mechanism.


It is the subjectivity of these ethical values – their origin in the ideal “freedom of the human will” -, and the fact that this ethical-moral “freedom” can be founded exclusively on the objectivity and “scientific” operation of the market mechanism and on the “laws of Economics” – it is these two factors combined that liberalism can exploit ideologically to vaunt its unique affinity with democracy. The central tenet of liberalism is that “democracy” is socially impossible unless the sphere of economic production and exchange is kept hermetically separate and protected from the sphere of public opinion with its “irrational” ethico-moral and religious beliefs! Locke and Constant are the great theoreticians of liberalism. For Locke, the separation of economic and political spheres is made possible by the fact that it is possible to assign individual property rights to resources by means of “individual labour” – by which Locke means also the labour of others exchanged like any other product of labour or commodity. Constant goes further by treating liberalism as the social state that allows the transformation of proprietary antagonism from war to commerce. In other words, for Constant, commerce, or the Lockean appropriation of resources on the basis of supposedly “individual” labour, leads not just to social peace guaranteed by a neutral State, but also to international peace between nation-states on the basis of the disciplining effect of property and capital movements between nation-states! This could not be achieved without the existence of “natural rights” that precede the State.


It is just such a jusnaturalist position that Hobbes denies steadfastly and intransigently – and one that he demolishes with the ruthlessness of his logic. The greatness of Hobbes lies precisely in having demonstrated that a society run strictly along capitalist lines on the basis of possessive individualism is quite impossible because it will inevitably descend into civil war – that, paceConstant, it is not possible for commerce to replace war as a means of resolving the conflict implicit in commercial transactions (possessive individualism, private ownership of social resources) either within or without the boundaries of the nation-State. Auctoritas, non veritas, facit legem. The essence of laws, says Hobbes, is not their “content”; it is not the “truth” of their injunction – for the simple reason that there can be no universal Truth of which the laws are dictates. For Hobbes as later for Nietzsche, the real essence of the law, its actual “truth”, is the very fact of its enforcement – the fact that a particular Will is able to impose it on the subjects to which it applies and who are forced to obey it. It is the authority of the Sovereign, the actual physical ability to enforce the law that makes it “law”; it is certainly not the correspondence of the law to an intersubjective universal human Truth that makes it “the law”. (Wrong therefore are the theses of Leo Strauss and Warrender thatclaim Hobbes for liberalismAnd equally wrong is Macpherson to claim that Locke’s theory of theState is in all analogous to Hobbes’s.)


Hobbes’s political theory, therefore, contra Habermas, is clearly not an attempt to scientize politics – because for Hobbes it is quite impossible to give politics any scientific basis – again, for the simple reason that there can be no scientific “truth” upon which a hypothetical “ideal polity” (a Utopia) can be founded. On the contrary, for Hobbes what science dictates is that politics begins and ends with the authority of the Sovereign. But this authority is legitimated contractually by the subjects of the common-wealth, of the State, not because it is the settlement dictated by scientific “truth” – but rather precisely for the opposite reason (!), that is to say, that science shows conclusively that no commonwealth or society or State can be founded on the dictates of science! It is this negative conclusion – the impossibility of a commonwealth or State that answers to a summum bonum or Truth – that is the real foundation of the Hobbesian status civilis or State as the supreme and ultimate endeavour of human beings to escape the otherwise ineluctable state of civil war, thestatus naturae or bellum civium (war of all against all).


To reinforce his point, Hobbes distinguishes between laws or rights or moral rules that operate in foro interno – in the sense that each individual human being may repose credence in them – and the utter impossibility of applying these individual rules in foro externo by virtue of the fact that these “internal” ethical rules can never coincide with the “external” objective rule imposed by the State! The only “rule” or Value that can be agreed upon is the scientific fact that human beings wish above all to preserve their individual “life” from violent death at the hands of other human beings. And given the ability of any one individual human being to threaten the life of any other individual, it is this metus mortis, this fear of violent death, which can be the only “scientific” basis of the State. The State is the deus mortalis in the sense that its godliness – its omnipotence - is not derived from theological sources but from the very mortal forces of human voracity, of human appetite for endless possession. Whereas the old mediaeval Scholastic theories of the State remained theo-cratic in that the supremacy of the State over its subjects remained still ethico-moral in nature because of its “patriarchal” analogy to the Divinity and the Judaeo-Christian family, Hobbes’s theory of the State breaks radically with all previous political theory by asserting and demonstrating geometrico-mechanically the absolute primacy of the State in the foundation of human society. The basis of the State is not rendered “scientific” thereby: or rather, the State is “scientific” only to the extent that science requires it to proscribe the Political so as to prevent the otherwise inevitable descent of humanity into total civil war. (As Leo Strauss put it in reference to Schmitt, Hobbes theorised a State that put an end to politics understood as the state of nature, and Schmitt theorises a state of nature that reintroduces politics to the State. Both Hobbes and Schmitt, moving in opposite directions, theorise the incompatibility of State and politics.)


It is evident therefore that for Hobbes there can be no distinction or separation of any sphere of civil life, including the “economic” sphere, from the existence of the State: for Hobbes, society and the State are one indivisible entity: there is simply no human society or natural society or civil society possible outside the State. The State is a restauratio ab imis fundamentis of human society – a total constitutional order – founded solely on the ability of the Sovereign to enforce its decisions (the law). It is equally impossible therefore for a law to be “natural” and thus to be “just” independently of the State that enforces it: a conduct is “just” in a State that enforces it, and the very same rule can be “unjust” in a State that proscribes it. A law can be “right” in one State and its very opposite can be equally “right” in another State that enforces its opposite. The “truth” of the law is the authority of the Sovereign, not an independent and intrinsic Value possessed by or contained in that law.


The same applies of course to economic “laws” based as they must be on the notion of property (the individual claim to social resources), individual labours or utility (as the subjective individual ethical basis for property rights), and exchange (as the foundation of market prices and commerce). All economic science is based on the “exchange” of pro-ducts between individuals. But “exchange” implies by definition the existence of property rights possessed by individuals over the pro-ducts that they are meant “to exchange”. As we have shown, however, for Hobbes no such property “rights” can exist outside of the State; and they cannot constitute therefore an objective scientific basis or an ideal ethical basis for the science of “economics”. For this very reason, the HobbesianState is not an ideal State – it is not a prescription: it is instead a statement of fact! For Hobbes, every conceivable human society, to the extent that it is viable, must be founded on his analytical doctrine of the State! This means that for Hobbes liberalism is not only impossible as a political foundation for human society, but to the extent that it appears to hold sway it can do so only on ideological veils that obscure the real nature of the State on which all human society must be founded. For Hobbes, liberalism is impossible – a fraud or a fib at best – owing to its very theoretical premise, that is, possessive individualism.

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